This month saw the one-year anniversary of the 2019 Union Cup being held at Dublin City University.
The Union Cup, Europe’s largest LGBT+ and inclusive rugby tournament, was held in Ireland for the first time last year and the tournament hosts, Dublin-based Emerald Warriors RFC, are reaping the rewards and positive impacts of that hugely successful weekend.
Richie Fagan and Michael Menton played a massive role in the hosting of the tournament. Fagan and Menton are both players for the club and they are also the acting president and vice-president. Fagan was also the chairman of the Union Cup organising committee.
With the impacts of COVID-19 denying all of us the opportunity to partake in activities which define who we are, reflecting on the success of that weekend and joy it provided to so many people is essential.
“Looking back on it, we’re still chuffed to have achieved what we have done and the fruits of that have come through the club really well this year,” Fagan tells Pundit Arena.
“Numbers are up on recruitment. We have a completely transformed coaching arrangement. There’s a whole new confidence within the guys as well in the club. But also the relationships we’ve built up at the grassroots level. We’ve made some phenomenal relationships there. Whether it be within the Leinster branch, within the Metro League, within the Leinster Exec.
“Being able to pick up the phone to any of those guys which before you were seeing them from a distance but genuinely, the way they contacted us through COVID – reaching out to see how we’re getting on. It really felt that we were part of a bigger family.”
Breaking down the barriers between the LGBT+ community and heterosexuality in a sporting context has been one of the key success stories out of Union Cup 2019 and especially in the case of the Emerald Warriors.
Although rugby was the focus of that weekend last June, Fagan and Menton were adamant that the tournament would cater for families, children and interested passers-by. They did this by ensuring there were entertainment offerings for everyone to enjoy – music, a fan zone, food and drink were all there in abundance in tandem with plenty of action on the pitch.
“But the amount of people that remark on, ‘All I could see were happy faces, all I could see were the guards with smiles on their faces, the Leinster lads in suits laughing and joking, the kids, the families.’
“That’s what the Leinster branch people keep coming back to talk about, that we brought a certain amount of joy into the rugby that maybe they didn’t have before in a tournament here,” Fagan says proudly.
“We always wanted that atmosphere.”
“We have so many staff members of the IRFU joining us who are married with kids. They just love what we do. Two guys who just came down and joined us at training and they’re like, ‘Look, we just love the atmosphere, we love what you guys are putting into rugby, the passion.’ We’re overjoyed with that, we want more of that.”
As Fagan describes, the Emerald Warriors have seen a huge increase in recruitment, so much that they are considering adding a third team to compete in Leinster’s Metro League.
Menton also mentions consistently throughout this conversation that the club are now being taken more seriously by rugby officials in the province as a result of the hugely successful hosting of the tournament.
“They’re looking at us in terms of leaders within that, that it was such a success,” Menton says.
“How did ye actually do that? And how do we replicate that? It has given us a bigger voice in the rugby community. For me, that has been one of the biggest successes. We’re nearly taken more seriously to a certain extent.”
This new-found level of respect is reflected in the increase in playing numbers, the willingness of large brand such as Bank of Ireland and Kukri to partner with the Emerald Warriors and the request of knowledge and experience from power-brokers in the game to potentially host tournaments on a similar scale in the future.
With an ever-increasing membership in the club, Fagan and Menton are determined to offer the best possible environment for newcomers. This transcends just rugby and they want to be the best club off the pitch as well. This has led to a welfare programme being implemented within the club to increase the confidence among their players and any potential new recruits.
As Fagan describes, many LGBT+ players suffer from confidence issues due to prejudice they may have suffered in the past or difficulties they may have had in coming out. The Warriors want to provide a holistic environment where everything is catered for in the hope that this can put a halt to the startling statistic which sees just 17% of the LGBT+ community involved in competitive sport.
“We introduced a welfare programme in the club this year because we suddenly realised there was confidence issues throughout the lads that were coming through – they could have been bullied, coming out, faded away from sport et cetera. There were a lot of chips on shoulders that we had to try to understand and figure out, how do we resolve this?
“We brought in ‘Folláine’, the Irish for wellbeing. We bring in speakers to the events. We’re very much looking at making our players the best on and off the pitch. That was even on the back of the research we did before the Union Cup. We realised the problems of LGBT in sport and how the numbers are so bad.
“Only 17% of the LGBT world are in competitive sport which is ridiculously low. We’re trying to change that. That has been really difficult this year but it has been really, really important. It was one of the big learnings from the Union Cup, that we had to bring a whole new level of wellbeing to the players to again, bring them on further.”
Although the club has made huge strides in the last 18 months, the endeavour for recognition and equality is an ongoing battle.
The recently published annual report from LGBT Ireland states that contact from the LGBT community in relation to incidents of homophobic and transphobic bullying and abuse has increased from the previous year.
This is a clear sign that Ireland still has a long way to go in providing a safe and inclusive environment for all of its people – this isn’t lost on Fagan or Menton.
“The report out from LGBT Ireland a few months ago, we have such an issue still with slurring, homophobia,” Fagan says.
“Look what’s going in America, looks what’s going on in the UK. These countries are going backwards. It’s unfortunate with this movement that’s happening now on the death of George Floyd but it has been so important to internally look at ourselves as to how we speak about Americans or black people.
“Even in Ireland, it’s just shocking, the stats. We’re so high up there. For such a great little country, we can be so insular. That’s where, for us, it’s so important that we remind our members, that what we put out…we got the respect and love from everyone for Union Cup but we have to earn that and we have to keep working on that.”
It’s clear that work in this area needs to continue but it’s not just from the Warriors themselves, it needs to come from all aspects of Irish society.
The issue surrounding racism in Ireland has been heightened with the prominence of the Black Lives Matter movement and many of the victims of such abhorrent abuse have spoken bravely about the undertones to people’s comments or what could also be described as ‘casual racism’.
This is a major issue in Irish society as it if it is accepted on any level, then it can fester into something much more serious. As Menton describes, it’s also applicable to the LGBT+ community as well.
“It’s that causal homophobia,” Menton says.
“Has anyone been called a ‘faggot’ on the pitch in the last year? No. Are you sort of in the middle of the match going, ‘What the hell is going on right now that there is a whistle blowing every five minutes and we actually don’t even know what’s going on?’ Yes, we have seen that. Do you call that homophobia? No, absolutely not because there’s nothing said but it’s the undertone to it.”
Although there are challenges which will require continuous work and effort in the future, Fagan and Menton are happy to declare that the club is thriving right now thanks to the efforts of the last 18 months.
But with that, there is increased responsibility as Fagan outlines.
“Because we feel now, that with this growth, we can’t mess it up. There’s an awful lot of responsibility. It can end up being so big and end up falling apart really quickly. We’re putting the time and energy into every level.
“From finance, legal and even an HR perspective – even to do a review and put down where we need to go and what we need to develop in terms of supports and volunteers to make sure that the lads are being looked after correctly. We want everyone to strive but in order to do that, we have to put the energy in right now before everyone comes back in September. There’s a huge amount of work going on in the background right now.”
The Emerald Warriors’ ‘home’ at the moment is St Mary’s Rugby Club in Templeogue. Their ultimate goal for the future? A place of their own.
“We are homeless and we need to sort that out,” Fagan says.
“That is the biggest problem for us mentally and for everyone. We’re trying to keep the players focussed on their game but I’m telling you now, we know for a fact that this is a problem. If you don’t have a home, it’s affecting their confidence without a doubt.”
“The crux is that when you don’t feel you have a home to actually go in and be yourselves. Bank of Ireland have been amazing. They’re the ones that’s really driving it for us, they’re like, ‘What’s the next step lads? What do ye need?’
“That brings the club to a whole new level where you’re going, ‘Actually, we have our own home grounds’ but when you’re on someone else’s beck and call, as good as Mary’s have been to us, it’s not ours. And we’re very well aware that we’re on someone else’s territory.”
Fagan and Menton, in addition to their predecessors, have managed to foster the growth of not just a rugby club, but an environment and place where everyone can be accepted regardless of colour, creed or sexual orientation.
For that, they should be commended and with the passion and work-ethic which is in abundance at the club, there doesn’t seem to be a limit to what the Warriors can achieve in the future.